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FOR THE KIDS : A Monument to Art of Play in Santa Barbara : About 4,000 volunteers pitched in to help build Kid's World, an entrancing environment for youngsters to frolic in.


Being a parent, you may think that you already know a thing or two about playgrounds. But have you seen one with a finger maze carved out of wood? Or chimes for plinking?

Trek up to Santa Barbara and witness Kid's World, a new 8,000-square-foot playground in old, stately Alameda Park. Playground isn't really the right word here. It's a monument to the art of play.

Kid's World is also a monument to the people of Santa Barbara, because they are the ones who built it recently. About 4,000 volunteers pitched in their time, skills and money to put up the wooden structure in just five days.

The result is a gigantic, multilevel piece of architecture that kids can race through, climb over, play hide-and-seek in and just explore. It has little slides, big slides and circular slides. It has ropes for climbing and wiggly, bouncy walkways.

On a warm day just before Christmas, what seemed like 100 or so kids and parents cavorted noisily on the playground, and it didn't seem crowded at all.

In the center is sort of a mini-amphitheater that serves as a good spot for parents to sit and watch all the activity around them.

"They should have this in every school--kids need this," said Judy Litschell, a mother and Santa Barbara child-care teacher who was there with her elementary-age students.

"They need the non-competitive play situation," she said. "And there are so many ways to test body skills. This is child's work. They need to do this, not watch TV, not sit in chairs."

The idea for the playground emerged more than a year ago when city officials began looking at the play equipment in local parks and realized that much of it badly needed upgrading.

"The Chamber of Commerce decided to work on Alameda Park," said Paula Cavagnaro, a chamber employee who eventually coordinated the volunteer labor on Kid's World.

Robert Leathers, an Ithaca, N. Y., architect who has designed about 800 playgrounds around the country, was hired to design the structure, she said. But he didn't do it alone. A design team composed of Santa Barbara kids helped him get it right.

With donated labor, materials and equipment, the project cost $180,000, money that was raised by the community. "Kids collected money from lemonade stands," Cavagnaro said. People who wanted to make a donation could "buy" a piece of the park or, perhaps, have their child's handprint imprinted on tile columns at the entrance.

The structure, with its turret-like caps and massive wood feel, has the look of professional craftsmanship. That's because so many of the volunteers were skilled laborers and contractors, Cavagnaro said.

The playground has a number of safety features, she said. The ground is covered with wood chips to cushion falls. Corners and sharp edges are encased in rubber. Railings are high enough to make it difficult for kids to climb over and fall. Wiggly balance beams are only inches off the ground.

Despite those efforts, one mother pointed out a problem. The playground is so large and filled with so many spots for kids to crawl into that it's hard to keep an eye on them, especially when the place is packed.

That may be one reason lots of parents that day were cavorting all over the playground themselves. But there is enough to interest them as well. Mechanical, walkie-talkie-like devices let kids and parents converse across the playground. The finger maze is a test not only for kids, but adults too. So is the marble maze, a series of little troughs for marbles to roll through.

A big attraction is a gizmo kids can grab onto and glide across a wire and back again. Others are the life-size whale and shark models for climbing over.

There are playthings and swings for toddlers. Bigger kids can crowd onto a tire swing and spin around until they get dizzy. Nearby are picnic tables and restrooms.


* WHAT: Kid's World, a gigantic outdoor play structure.

* WHERE: Alameda Park, at Santa Barbara and Sola streets, Santa Barbara.

* FYI: The park has picnic tables and restrooms. Adjacent to Alameda Park is Alice Keck Park, worth visiting for its gardens and pond.

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